B.J. PAYNE: Smack down



When he first arrived on Hilton Head Island, B.J. Payne heard whispers, jokes, barbs and condescending snickers. Apparently, people didn’t know what to make of a former professional wrestler-turned-football coach. But Payne’s time in the ring was a dream come true, and it has helped him find success at Hilton Head Island High School.

Payne dreamed of becoming a professional wrestler from the age of 4. Even while he was playing college football at the University of Mount Union in Ohio — where he helped the Purple Raiders win three national championships — he was angling for a career in the ring. He sported a WWF bandana under his helmet and made a point to mention the world's top wrestling organization every time he had a platform.

Now 42, Payne climbed to the top rope of the profession when he joined what was then known as the World Wrestling Federation. He wasn’t the flashiest wrestler in the business, but his peers at the time — now household names like Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar and John Cena — praised his work ethic. And he always had the gift of gab, which is a big part of putting on a show in the ring.

When his wrestling career was cut short by injury, Payne went back to his second love — football — and followed the path from his native Ohio to Hilton Head Island. Over the years, he has conserved his friendships with some pretty big heavyweights.

WWE stars John Cena and Randy Orton regularly pop up in Payne’s Twitter feed to cheer on the Seahawks or to share pictures of themselves sporting Hilton Head football gear. His players—who also love the Under Armour uniforms Payne got for them— thrive on attention.

“You’ve got to have a little bit of that swag,” Payne said. “It’s the little things that kids get excited about.”

Payne’s wife, Paige, and their five kids — ranging in age from 23 to 1 — also are some of the team’s biggest fans.

Payne has led the Seahawks to a 37-27 record over six years — including a 10-2 mark in 2015 — Hilton Head High’s highest win total since 1990.

Like many athletes and coaches, he has his superstitions, but his go a little further than most. He has eaten Chinese food on every game day since his sophomore year in high school, and has been known to wear the same clothes as long as necessary during a winning streak — or to change at halftime after a particularly bad start.

Since Payne took over in 2012, the Seahawks have placed 25 players on college rosters — including 12 at NCAA Division I schools — and another half-dozen from this year’s senior class are expected to sign college scholarships. It doesn’t happen by accident, said Payne, who models his program on college football programs, on the field and off. During the season, players participate in mandatory study tables, study scouting reports and game film, and eat meals as a team several times a week. During the offseason, they’re offered tutoring help, ACT and SAT prep sessions, and strength training.

All of this support has helped former Seahawk players succeed in college academically and athletically. In addition to the many players who have gone on to successfully earn college diplomas, Hilton Head High alumnus Bryce Singleton recently was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team, and former Seahawks star Poona Ford had an outstanding senior season at the University of Texas and is now an NFL draft prospect.

Nobody is laughing now.